‘I feel good about this year’: Baltimore-area schools resume classes amid staffing concerns, new masking rules

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Pencils were freshly sharpened and whiteboards wiped clean as Baltimore-area educators readied their classrooms for students ahead of the coming school year.

Baltimore City schools CEO Sonja Santelises hopes those familiar emblems of back-to-school season signal a new start to school communities as Monday marks the fourth consecutive academic year touched by the COVID-19 pandemic.


“A lot of our young people need that rebound, as well as our staff,” Santelises said.

School leaders around the region spent the summer troubleshooting a litany of challenges — including changing standards for limiting the spread of the coronavirus, staffing shortages and physical security updates — brought on or exacerbated by the pandemic. While some of those concerns are expected to linger into the fall, top public school leaders say they’re focusing now on optimism over anxiety.


Maryland public education has faced a variety of difficulties since the onset of the pandemic, which closed many school buildings around the region for more than a year. Some jurisdictions reported significant enrollment and attendance declines last year, even though in-person instruction had resumed. As educators focused their attention on academic recovery, frequent absences stemming from COVID and staffing shortages left them feeling spread thin. And students showed signs of social and behavioral problems, leading schools to beef up security measures on campuses.

Santelises said school staff can’t “wave a wand” to make problems go away. Schools that saw positive responses in students last year were those where people focused on building community, setting clear expectations and providing consistency, she said.

Baltimore County Superintendent Darryl Williams mingled with new teachers at a staff orientation in mid-August. Seeing the new faces gave him a sense of progress, he said. The following day, in a back-to-school meeting with administrators with the theme of “Moving Forward: Together Again,” the superintendent noted similar eagerness from more seasoned staff.

“I feel good about this year, particularly because of the enthusiasm that we saw in these two meetings,” Williams said.

Baltimore County student Fatima Shahzadi, 13, said she’s excited for the school year now that she’s back from four years of living overseas. The middle schooler went to elementary school in the county before moving to Pakistan. At the county’s welcome center for English leaners in Catonsville on Thursday, she said she’s most looking forward to making new friends and reconnecting with old ones.

“It’s kind of nostalgic,” Shahzadi said. “I spent some of my childhood here.”

Williams acknowledged that the challenges of the past several years for staff and students remain, but said this year will look very different from the 2021-22 school year.

One of the starkest differences is in COVID mitigation plans. Baltimore City and county, as well as Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties don’t require people to wear masks inside schools. Some jurisdictions have eased quarantine protocols and contact tracing, based on federal and state guidance that’s aimed at keeping students in class.


Maryland State Department of Education guidelines recommend schools stress the importance of staying home when sick and masking to prevent the spread of disease. A person who tests positive for COVID may return to school after five days if they wear a mask for an additional five days. Those who are unable to wear a mask can either stay home until 10 days pass or return to school or child care after Day 5 if they can test negative. At Day 10 or after, students can return without taking a test first.

Officials hope such changes will prevent confusion among families and reduce pressure on educators overwhelmed last year when colleagues were home on quarantine, even as staffing levels were already low. Teacher vacancies have long been a problem in Maryland, which does not produce enough educators to meet demand.

Baltimore City schools had 225 vacancies to fill as of Aug. 19, Santelises said Tuesday. The system, which is responsible for the education of roughly 80,000 students, typically faces about 600 vacancies ahead of each school year. The school system actually hired hundreds more staff members this year than usual because new positions were created with money from the landmark educational reform package called the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

Meanwhile, Baltimore County Public Schools had about 430 teacher vacancies at the beginning of August. With a week left before the first day of school, Williams said his school system, the third-largest in Maryland with a 9,100-member teacher workforce, was 96% staffed. A day later, the county school system said in statement that due to “re-imagined school structures,” the system had met 98% of its staffing needs and had fewer than 200 classroom staff vacancies.

Throughout August, the county school system held numerous job fairs to recruit educators, bus drivers and other workers, though staffing remains a year-round issue. Efforts to address it include hiring substitutes to fill in for teachers for longer periods, retirees rejoining the workforce and assigning college interns to long-term substitute assignments. Additionally, the system said 355 secondary teachers volunteered to teach an extra period for additional compensation.

“Folks are starting to recognize that the importance is really what’s happening in those classrooms and to make sure we have qualified teachers in every building,” Williams said.


Teacher recruitment and retention and problems with school bus service are challenges the county school system continues to grapple with.

Still, the county school board is in a dispute with the County Council over how to implement promised raises for educators. The school board wants to use surplus funding for the raises, but council members and County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. are pushing back against using a one-time source of funding, calling it unsustainable. The council will vote on the raises in the coming weeks.

The county is making changes to student transportation following complaints last year about bus delays and students being stranded at bus stops due to driver shortages and drivers calling in sick. This year, the county is experimenting in its northeast region with offering service only to families that opt in, with the results to be studied as the year progresses.

“We’re hoping to see some gains and some improvements,” Williams said. “We’ll continue to tweak those models to make sure we can really address that issue of the callouts and buses.”

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School officials around the region are rolling out safety initiatives after some children brought new behavioral issues to school after resuming in-person learning. And a deadly shooting by a high school student at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in May left some administrators feeling a renewed sense of urgency to address nationwide concerns over school safety.

Baltimore County schools suspended students at a higher rate last year and added safety assistants in response to community concerns. Baltimore City schools emphasized the importance of deep connections between students and their communities as a preventive measure, while adding metal detectors and securing entrances to school buildings.


Maryland State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said he hopes to see such investments matched in mental health and wraparound services for students.

“Being able to invest in communities, schools, being able to invest in mental health supports, being able to provide coordinated wraparound services to our students is going to be key in being able to identify students with challenges earlier,” he said in an interview.

Williams and Baltimore County school board members heard a presentation Aug. 23 from school system staff who said that the overall suspension rates last year were comparable to the 2019-20.

As Williams viewed the statistics and reflected on the staffing gains this summer, he wondered if this academic year might finally resemble pre-pandemic times. He became superintendent during the 2019-20 school year, which was then cut short by the pandemic.

“[This year] may be as good as my first year; it may be even better,” Williams said. “But we’ll see.”